County cracks down on farms, following commercial building code
Jay Brown doesn’t understand why the county is suddenly changing the rules on him.
The Wingate resident, who has lived in Union County for 19 years, saw his Cross Creek Arena, 1916 McIntyre Road, shut down in January for not following the state’s 2009 commercial building code amendments. Brown questions why Cross Creek, which opened in 2007, has to follow a law approved two years later.
“When it was built, it was (built) to code,” Brown said. “I’ve been operating since 2007, all of a sudden, they shut me down.”
County officials say they’re just following North Carolina law, specifically House Bill 780, which was signed by the governor in 2009. The law requires all farm buildings that hold events with at least 10 spectators to follow the commercial code. That means a sprinkler system has to be installed, as well as fire alarms and some events must have a special use permit.
In an unusual twist, the law also doesn’t allow any structure built prior to 2009 to be grandfathered in.
“This act applies to all farm buildings, including farm buildings where construction either began or was completed prior to the effective date of this act,” Section 3 of the document reads.
It’s unclear exactly how state officials expected the law to be enforced, as everything from a family gathering to a horse show could include 10 people or more. In each case, if the facility doesn’t have at least a sprinkler or fire alarm, it would violate the law.
The 30,000 sq. ft. Cross Creek Arena plays host each year to multiple events, ranging from rodeos to visits from special needs groups. Until this year, Brown said, he didn’t have any problems. Since the county shut him down the first week of January, he’s already lost 12 events booked for this year, Brown said and doesn’t see a way to follow the county’s requests.
“I lost 12 rodeos, they were on the books and it was happening,” Brown said. “Now they’re gone.”
He estimates Cross Creek has lost $20,000 in 2011 alone from canceled events.
The problem for Brown is not just cost, but the practicality of the requests. Union County Fire Marshal Neal Speer detailed the issues in a Jan. 6 letter, citing a need for a sprinkler, a firm alarm and other items.
The McIntyre Road property is 2 ½ miles from where county water reaches, so it would be impossible for Brown to link up and install a sprinkler system that way. He studied pumping the water from the pond on his property, but couldn’t get the hydraulics to pump enough water to the arena to satisfy the requirement.
“Either the county provides me water is this doesn’t work, but the closest county water is over two miles from where I am,” Brown said. “What am I supposed to do?”
Citations and verbal complaints
Another issue for Brown is how the arena was shut down. Fire Marshal Speer came out to the property the first week of January, saying the county had received a complaint that crowds coming to shows on the property had exceeded the legal limit. When Union County Weekly requested a copy of the complaint, Speer said the complaint was verbal. He then referred UCW to the county’s public information officer, Brett Vines and the legal team. Due to potential legal action in the case, Vines said, the county refused to turn over the name of the complainant.
Following the fire marshal’s visit, Brown got letters Jan. 19 from the county’s Inspections Department and then Jan. 24 from the county’s Land Use Administrator, citing further issues.
“Any permanent building must comply with the entire (building) code,” Commercial Inspector Terry Griffin wrote. “Minimum plumbing fixtures and facilities must be provided. The number and type of fixtures is based on the calculated occupant load.”
Brown argued that his building, which has a dirt floor, was an open air facility.
“The only open building that the Code recognizes is a parking garage,” Griffin wrote to Brown in a two page letter. “The term would, therefore, not apply to your building.”
County Land Use Administrator Lee Jensen told Brown in his letter the farmer would have to file a request with the county’s Board of Adjustment before any further events. Holding an event and the number of events allowed each year, would be up to the board, which would have to grant Brown a Special Use Permit, Jensen said.
Finally on Feb. 21, Interim County Manager Wes Baker sent a letter, stating that Brown could not hold any events on the site until all the issues had been addressed to the county’s satisfaction.
Despite these violations and shutting down the property, the county has not issued any citations to Brown, who says his only record of any issues are the letters he received from county staff.
“I’m not a renegade or a rebel, but you can’t selectively pick me out, it’s not right,” Brown said, asking why he was able to operate for almost four years without any problems, but now the county suddenly comes in and shuts down his facility. He also questioned why farmers in the county were never informed of the 2009 law and its potential impact, until it came time to shut down his property.
“Frustrated is not a good word for it,” Brown said. “The only other option is that I tear it down and move (the business) out of the county. I’m not going to pay property taxes on a building I can’t use.”
Aside from providing the letters and stating there was no written complaint, county staff members had no comment on the issue.
Changing the law?
Since being shut down, Brown said he’s contacted state officials, including N.C. House Rep. Craig Horn, to see if anything can be done. Any changes, Horn said, would be slow in coming.
“Mr. Brown did contact me about a bill he felt unnecessarily restricted use of farm buildings,” Horn said. “My further research revealed that this bill may impact a number of equine facilities throughout Union County including Misty Meadows in Waxhaw.”
Horn said he had been circulating the bill among horse facilities in Union County, the county’s Farm Bureau and other agriculture based businesses for comment. He also met with the bill’s creator, Randolph County Rep. Harold Brubaker, to discuss the issue.
“I continue to work on this issue and will meet with Agriculture Commissioner Troxler this week to discuss before I attempt any clarifying legislation,” Horn said.